Muse Kashmir: How Should Fashion Represent It?

Muse Kashmir: How Should Fashion Represent It?

Debates around Sanjay Garg’s withdrawn campaign Zooni underline a bigger question. How should fashion deal with Kashmir for design, inspiration and as a location?

Since most journalists are judged by who they “protect” and who they “call out” —a term for social media disagreement—let me offer my point and be damned.

The Sanjay Garg ‘Zooni’ campaign for his new Winter-Festive collection released on Instagram on October 2 that was taken off after it provoked a backlash got the timing of its release wrong. It certainly needed clearer disclaimers about when the campaign was planned and photographed, the time, place and factual details of its making instead of the positioning it adopted. “Zooni…because Kashmir is about its people. Which needs to be seen and heard,” it reportedly said. Just at the time when the people of Kashmir have been blacked out and locked down and can neither be seen nor heard, Garg could have thought through the messaging more carefully and timed it better.

The campaign was shot by noted filmmaker Avani Rai known for her work in Kashmir. Information that there were pashmina saris, shawls and kurta pyjamas with materials sourced from the Valley, that it was relevant for winter, that it had a bridal aesthetic and was photographed in June/July would have been pertinent.

Says Garg, “The collection was ready; the campaign was shot much before the ongoing lockdown in Kashmir. Before this launch, the brand delayed the release of the campaign owing to decisions involving Article 370 and announced the same on August 8 on Instagram. It is clear to us now that the decision to release it on October 2 was not the right time and we immediately took it down.”



Campaign image from the Sanjay Garg Zooni collection that was withdrawn by Raw Mango.

Sanjay Garg or any other designer, painter, or visual artist is a free agent which is a pre-requisite of their creativity. They cannot be told to conceptualise, situate and photograph a fashion campaign across 29 states (now 28) and seven Union Territories but not in the recently added two. Not only does that shackle a story board but it beheads the “forward thinking” genre that fashion must always strive to be.

Of course, how an artist liberated from political concerns walks and talks the tightrope between the culturally sensitive and absolute creative freedom is a matter for an artist and his audience. That’s perhaps what happened to Raw Mango’s ‘Zooni’. It tipped a little to the other side because of its timing. Not because of its aesthetic; not because it offered unwearable and unsaleable clothes.  Not because it was called ‘Zooni’.

Instead of pussyfooting around Kashmir and making it a “delicate” subject, and worrying about a politically correct lexicon, we should normalise talking about Kashmir without the political overload. Some will rap my knuckles saying that it is not the business of fashion to offer solutions to Kashmir’s communication with itself, with India and with the world. But it is the business of fashion to bring back commercial viability to the artisanal industry of Kashmir. To liberate it from the clichés of unimaginative tourism.

A number of other brands and designers have recently used Kashmir as symbol and location. Rina Singh of Eka shot an Autumn-Winter 2019 collection and all her Instagram posts credit Aru Valley in Pahalgam as the location. She didn’t include any message and that was smart. Anavila shot a recent campaign in Ladakh. Captivatingly shot too without any claim to local textiles or social life. Last year, Wills Lifestyle launched its Autumn-Winter 2018 “Kashmir-inspired” collection. Journalists were taken from different cities to Pahalgam for the launch. The clothes had little to do with Kashmiri artisanship or craft but the Valley was used a launch pad.

When famed Kashmiri couturier Rohit Bal references Kashmir as a part of his brand signature, including by bringing shikaras to the ramp like for Lakmé Fashion Week Summer-Resort 2019 Usha Silai show, we applaud it. Shouldn’t Garg have a similar right to explore Kashmir? That he may have got it wrong doesn’t shrink his right.

That brings us to another core question. Can ‘Zooni’ be accused of cultural appropriation? From all arguments so far on the issue, Kashmiri poet and activist Farah Bashir’s views on Twitter that the campaign “reinforces a certain image of a Kashmiri woman” is the one I find most persuasive. To sum up Bashir’s thoughts, the campaign shows a bride instead of the military and pava-spray braving, pellet-facing woman who goes looking for her missing siblings and family in jails, a detained academic, a jailed innocent…

Bashir’s account of the current state of the Kashmiri woman points to the need of a new narrative about women in festive garments. Something fashion must heed to with all its “forward” ho-hum that I just argued. So we must shift away from stereotypes (the entire Indian bridal couture industry is culpable of a certain narrative but well, that’s another story). We can’t forever be singing stories of bridal fashion through red and gold costumes.

Yet, for all our impassioned debates, it’s the market that will finally decide. Pherans and pashmina shawls will continue to sell this winter and the next: appropriations, interpretations, derivations and the original ones. Whether Sanjay Garg makes them or not.

As for ‘Zooni’, it is also selling in stores. I am not sure what it is called there.

Banner Image: Campaign image from the Sanjay Garg Zooni collection that was withdrawn by Raw Mango.–3204